Can You Make Peace with Your Painful Past?
The strangest thing happened to me the other day. I was writing an email and mentioned the name of a person from my past. As I was writing, I paused for a minute and thought to myself: I wonder what they’re up to. Little did I know!
The following morning, lo and behold, here it is—an email from that person. I haven’t heard from them in 10 years. However, they are a strong reminder of the past—the good, the bad and everything in between.
I thought I had accepted my past as part of my journey to be who I am today. I was under the impression that I was okay with everything that transpired—memories, betrayal, broken promises and new beginnings.
Well, the universe in its infinite wisdom decided to throw in a little reminder for me. And the outcome was not what I expected at all.
Upon finding that email, a cloud of darkness descended upon me. Anxiety took over to the point of nausea. The feelings were so familiar.
To make matters worse, I started an internal dialogue—and a harsh one at that. I kept telling myself: What’s wrong with you? You’re supposed to have learned from this and moved on. Why are you stuck here?
Instead of helping, the inner critic aggravated the anxiety.
It took me a while to stop and be still. I paused for a moment. I realized that I’m reacting to nothing other than my own associations about this person. I’m fine where I am now.
Instead of sitting and feeding the negativity, I decided to do something completely different. I started moving. I did my workout routine and then did an additional 45 minutes of resistance training. It helped calm me down and channel the anxiety.
This experience showed me that what I thought was a closed chapter, isn’t actually closed—and to be honest, I’m not sure if I want to close it completely. So where do I go from here and what can I tell you to make peace with past painful experiences?
Here is what I’ve been doing.
Accept what you’re feeling without judgment.
Resisting or questioning how you feel isn’t going to help you. What helps is allowing the pain to go through you. Sit with it and let it be.
Cry if you feel like crying; or simply close your eyes and feel the emotions go through your body. You can also channel your feelings through physical movement. Go for a brisk walk, run, do the dishes or clean something.
If you’re judging yourself, stop it. Intentionally, but gently, stop the mental dialogue. Tell yourself: Been there, done that—time to try something else.
Recognize where you are today.
“You can clutch the past so tightly to your chest that it leaves your arms too full to embrace the present.” ~Jan Glidewell
This is where you can step out of your memory and association with the past.
How can this memory affect you today? Is your life going to be any worse because of what transpired years ago?
Look at your surroundings and think of your life. Things have changed and so have you. The past doesn’t define you—and it shouldn’t ruin your present.
Focus on all of the good in your life. Gratitude for where you are today is a great antidote for a painful yesterday.
You don’t need to understand why.
When something from out past resurfaces, it’s almost instinctive to fall into victim mode and start questioning: How can they do this to me? What have I done to deserve this? Why are they showing up again in my life? And on and on.
Seeking answers for these questions won’t make you feel better—I guarantee it. Your answers are only a reflection of your own negative interpretation of the past. You can never be 100% sure of why a person did or didn’t do something. So why waste your time and energy in a process that won’t give you any satisfactory results?
What is more powerful is going within and reflecting on how you can handle the situation in a way that is in harmony with your truth and values.
“We cannot change our past. We cannot change the fact that people act in a certain way. We can not change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude.” ~Charles Swindoll
Don’t react. Respond if need be with kindness.
You can easily slip into self-blame and regret or direct your anger towards others. It can be tempting to treat someone like they treated you in the past. Please don’t. You’ll regret it later when the pain subsides.
What you can do, however, is try to be in the other person’s shoes. What does it feel like to be on the other side? You may not be able to see it completely but you will gain some perspective. A sense of compassion never hurts. From this place, you can respond with kindness and understanding.
If you can’t get to that place, leave things as is. You don’t need to do anything. There is a lot of wisdom in silence. Trust and be still. When the time comes, you will know what to do and do it calmly and respectfully.
Decide if you want to close the door that pains you or not.
Depending on the situation and the people involved, this may be the time for you to close that door completely.
If you wish to close that chapter of your life and not have any further contact with the person involved, do it gently. There is nothing wrong with telling someone you do not wish to stay in touch with them and you’re moving on.
You of course have the choice to rework the relationship and keep the door open.
If you choose not to close the door, accept that person for who they are today and reframe the relationship into something that works for you. Don’t do it out of guilt, nostalgia or not wanting a confrontation.
If you’re wondering where I am in the process, I’m right here trying to figure out how I want to proceed without shutting the door. This person is still important to me. But I want our interaction to be from a place that is fair and acceptable to both of us.
Make a conscious decision to forgive and let go.
Let’s face it. If you still feel bad, you’re stuck in the past. Now is the time to do things differently.
What would it take for you to let go of the negative emotions? And how would you feel? Sometimes it is scary to let go of something we’ve carried for so long. Don’t let your past associations define you. You are much more than that.
Forgiving someone is not about accepting what they did. It’s about letting go of your attachment to what happened. Do it for you, not anyone else.
If you are having difficulty with forgiveness, seek the help of a professional. You deserve a break.
When you let go, you free yourself from reliving the painful experiences. You feel lighter and more at ease. You become more at peace and as Gandhi said: Peace is its own reward.
Can we make peace with our painful past? I think we can or at least we can try because we owe it to ourselves.